Nige­ria should stay grounded, for now

Finweek English Edition - - IN BRIEF -

Nige­ria should have its own air­line. Any­one who has seen the size and stature of t he Nige­rian econ­omy knows it. It did have a na­tional car­rier, Nige­ria Air­ways, but it col­lapsed in 2003, mired in debt and brought low by cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment (on a pes­simistic day, I’d tell you that you could pick a sec­tor in Nige­ria and you’d find a story sim­i­lar to this).

In Au­gust, pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari or­dered the min­istry of avi­a­tion to be­gin work on the es­tab­lish­ment of a new air­line, ex­press­ing his con­cern at Nige­ria’s lack of a na­tional car­rier. It is, in his view, an im­por­tant step for na­tional pride but also for job cre­ation, which is suf­fer­ing due to the sharp drop in crude oil prices, the main driver of the Nige­rian econ­omy.

The move has been wel­comed by some quar­ters: it ’s true that the con­ti­nent’s largest econ­omy should boast an air­line and that there are cer­tainly pas­sen­gers look­ing for an al­ter­na­tive to muchder i ded Arik Air, whose ser vices were se­verely com­pro­mised dur­ing Nige­ria’s re­cent fuel cri­sis and where – in my re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence – your plane is far more likely to be de­layed than not. Nige­ria wouldn’t have to do much to of­fer a ser­vice that was an im­prove­ment on some of my trips; even the word Arik prompts rolled eyes and sighs from dis­grun­tled cus­tomers keen for bet­ter ser­vices.

For oth­ers, Buhari’s fo­cus on an air­line seems odd. Firstly, get­ting a prof­itable air­line go­ing seems like a dif­fi­cult busi­ness in Nige­ria – de­spite the dis­bur­sal of a 300bn (around R20bn) in­ter­ven­tion fund, most of the coun­try’s pri­vate air­lines are heav­ily in­debted to reg­u­la­tory agen­cies un­der the avi­a­tion min­istry.

Se­condly, an air­line is an ex­pen­sive pro­ject at a time when Nige­ria’s not f lush with cash, partly be­cause of the oil price crash and partly be­cause of large-scale mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of funds un­der pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions. Say you’ve booked a plane ticket to f ly to Abuja from La­gos. You’ll wake up how many hours be­fore to beat the traf­fic and ne­go­ti­ate the roads, the traf­fic and the area boys? You’ll walk past how many beg­gars on your way into the air­port? You’ll queue for ages only to dis­cover the plane isn’t run­ning that day be­cause of op­er­a­tional dif­fi­cul­ties, which usu­ally means in­suf­fi­cient jet fuel sup­ply. You may even­tu­ally get on the plane only to f ind the land­ing de­layed in Abuja be­cause of pri­vate jet traff ic into the air­port or be­cause of re­pairs be­ing done to the run­way.

From this hy­po­thet­i­cal trip alone, you can see that Nige­ria’s pri­or­i­ties need for now to be far more fun­da­men­tal than air­lines. Fix in­equal­ity, f ix ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture, f ix the re­liance of the econ­omy on im­ported oil prod­ucts when it pro­duces its own crude oil. Find jobs fast for those who need them now, rather than build­ing a pro­ject and then find­ing peo­ple to fit. En­sure that when you’ve built your air­line, history won’t re­peat it­self; so that means fix­ing cor­rup­tion.

An air­line is a nice idea and will even­tu­ally and hope­fully be­come a re­al­ity, but it’s an idea that should stay at the bot­tom of the to-do list un­til far more fun­da­men­tal build­ing blocks are in place.


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